There are many success stories across Canada when it comes to resource-development agreements and partnerships between First Nations, companies and government. Most non-Native people don’t realize this. Even in my home community of Attawapiskat, negotiations in general between my people and De Beers Canada has benefited many. The process is obviously not perfect but at the very least, the company, First Nation leadership and governments have bargained in good faith to make a very large project happen in the middle of pristine wilderness.
This is a big change for my people considering that we were largely forgotten. Through a process of assimilation and marginalization, my grandfathers and great-grandfathers had little choice but to live off a limited amount of land and survive through hunting and gathering. Even though resource-development companies and non-Native people were reaping the benefits of huge projects happening on traditional territories, we saw very little coming to us.
These days, people think that First Nations in southern areas, such as Timmins, Kirkland Lake, North Bay and Sudbury, were the recipients in one way or another of the many huge mining, forestry and hydro projects that occurred over the past 100 years. If you check with First Nation leaders and Elders in these areas, you will quickly find out that Native people were very much left out of the loop when it came to all this development. Only a few decades ago, in general, First Nation people were not very welcome in many Canadian cities and towns. Of course, we have to remember that this was another time in the evolution of our society when racism and bigotry was more or less normal.
Thanks to the survival skills and sheer will of First Nation people we have managed to live long enough where our newer generations have access to education and today we see many bright young Native lawyers, executives, educators and politicians who are making life better for their people.
In the past few decades, many First Nation organizations and tribal councils have developed the negotiating expertise that has allowed Native people to reap some of the benefits of huge resource development projects on traditional lands. In my own area known as the Nishnawbe-Aski Nation (NAN), which comprises most of northern Ontario, the Wabun Tribal Council’s six chiefs have negotiated all types of resource-development agreements. These have led to training, employment and business opportunities for their First Nation members.
None of this came about easily. I can recall that when Shawn Batise, Executive Director for Wabun Tribal Council, and his chiefs began communicating with large corporations coming on to their traditional lands, there was some confusion, resistance and confrontation. However, once Batise and his leadership communicated with resource developers in a positive and beneficial way, the result was a meeting of minds.
The companies involved in the development were assisted by Wabun Tribal Council in terms of better access and improved time lines for these large projects. I have seen many Exploration Agreements (EA), Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and Impact and Benefits Agreements (IBA) signings involving corporations, government and Wabun First Nations. These have been mutually beneficial situations for everyone. As time has progressed, resource developers are now familiar with the process that Wabun Tribal Council has developed and that has resulted in positive working partnerships.
I know how proud the Elders are in the Wabun First Nations of Beaverhouse, Brunswick House, Chapleau Ojibwe, Flying Post, Matachewan and Mattagami. They are happy to see their grandchildren given work opportunities through training programs and education initiatives that have resulted from mutually beneficial agreements.
Although this is a new process for First Nation people who have been ignored for so many years, a new day has dawned for many Wabun members. They have become professionals working in forestry, mining and hydro development. Young men like Chris McKay of Mattagami First Nation has made us all proud with the good work he has been doing in consulting and new business development for his community.
In the far north, in communities like Attawapiskat, Fort Albany and Kashechewan, my people are still in the early stages of coming to terms with so much rapid development happening in the last pristine northern areas of Ontario. I am happy that they can look to organizations like NAN, Mushkegowuk Council, Chiefs of Ontario, the Assembly of First Nations and many tribal councils, for assistance and support in how to successfully move ahead with resource development.
Thanks to a lot of hard work by people like Batise and his Wabun leadership, people are realizing that First Nations are ready and willing to work with government and resource developers in the spirit of respect and fairness.